ABDALLA F. HASSAN | MIT Technology Review (Arab edition) | July 10, 2015
Omar Samra atop Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro
PHOTO COURTESY OF OMAR SAMRA
He was an asthmatic boy at 11. A quarter century later he had accomplished what only a handful of adventurers have. Egyptian traveler and mountaineer Omar Samra ascended the highest peak of every continent and skied to Earth’s south and north poles. His next odyssey is into orbit in 2016.
“Without technology, there would be a lot of places we wouldn’t be able to go,” says the six-foot, three-inch future astronaut. “We were able to go to outer space, to the deepest of oceans, to climb mountains, and traverse jungles.” His toughest single expedition, Mount Everest, was the first of Samra’s seven summits challenge, where he spent 65 days on the mountain. “It is difficult to be in a place that can be quite hostile and unforgiving for that long a period of time.”
With the help of oxygen
Technical advancements have made extreme travel gear more efficient. Take for instance the oxygen systems that have become the norm in high-altitude climbing. Samra ascended Everest with the aid of two cylinders of supplementary oxygen supplies.
“If you could teleport a human being to the summit in a blink of an eye, that person would probably loose consciousness within five minutes and die soon afterwards,” he explains. “With the amount of red blood cells we have in our system right now, we would not be able to carry enough oxygen to sustain life.”
Oxygen comprises 21 percent of air at sea level, compared with only 6 percent atop Everest. The climb is much more punishing without supplementary oxygen and the likelihood of frostbite rises dramatically when circulation is less efficient.
To reach the summits, climbers’ clothing needs to suit to the conditions of their travels. When it comes to footwear, climbers wear rigid, insulated mountaineering boots—affixed with crampons, claw-shaped braces that grip the ice, to aid mobility in frozen terrain. As for clothing, it is made from synthetic fiber that is lighter and warmer than the heavier wool clothing worn by early Everest mountaineers.
The first time Samra put on skis was for his polar expeditions, where temperatures fell at low as –37° Celsius—colder when factoring wind-chill. To keep his feet warm, he wore three layers of socks: a thin liner sock, a vapor barrier sock to contain moisture from sweat, and a heavy sock above that. Hands are more prone to frostbite. He wore long mittens over form-fitting gloves that gave him a measure of dexterity. He used hand warmer heat pads activated by contact with the air for additional warmth.
An extensive checklist
Considerable time, planning, preparation and money go into expeditions of this magnitude. Each of Samra’s challenges required a careful safety and risk assessment that included highlighting possible hazards, like a steep cliff face requiring specific climbing tools.
The checklist for an expedition can be long including the climbing equipment, tent and sleeping bag, clothing, cooking utensils, first aid, sanitizer, a Global Positioning System, food rations and knowing where to access fresh water, in addition to arranging medical insurance and knowing emergency contacts.
Samra skied the last 110 kilometers to the North Pole on drifting ice sheets above the Artic Ocean. The only accurate way to know the coordinates of the geographic North Pole was via GPS.
Learning from failure
Samra’s last of the seven summits was Alaska’s Mount Denali. He did not make it to the summit on his first assent in 2012, hindered by a storm and gale force winds that stranded him and his climbing mates at high camp for five days. “We only had a break in the weather and able to get off the high camp literally on our last food day,” recalls Samra. “Nature and mountains have this tendency to teach you life lessons when you need them the most.” Samra returned a year later and succeeded in reaching the summit.
“Technology leaps provide security and comfort that in some ways takes us from nature. We think we are not reliant on the land.”
The one step
Preparation for such expeditions is both mental and physical. In many ways, the physical training is the easier of the two. “It requires commitment, training and consistency, but anyone could do it,” says Samra.
During the seventh week of his Everest expedition, exhausted and having lost 12 kilos, he recalls, “we were on supplementary oxygen at that point, and we were taking six to seven breaths between each step”. With the next camp so far away, he considered turning back. Then the words of a British colleague who had climbed Everest came to mind. “He said, ‘Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.’ At the time I thought it was the most ridiculous, naïve piece of advice. The funny thing is that I remembered it at that precise moment, just before I was going to quit. When I asked myself, ‘Could you take another step?,’ the answer was always yes. When you’re able to reach that goal, the feeling of fulfillment is unparalleled.”